Chen Kaige belongs to the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers. Just like his counterparts Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Zhang Junzhao, and Li Shaohong, he graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and contributed to Chinese cinema popularization. Chen Kaige films are appreciated by broad and arthouse audiences. Particularly, Martin Scorsese was one of the first in the west to recognize his talent. This paper aims to probe the claim that a movie Farewell My Concubine depicts human life that has become a chain of traumatic experiences.
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Traumatic Experiences in Farewell My Concubine Movie
The most recognizable films by Chen Kaige are Yellow Earth (1984), Farewell My Concubine (1993) – Palme d’Or winner at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, 100 Flowers Hidden Deep (2002) – a segment in the anthology film Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet. Others are Together (2002) – Silver Seashell winner at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, Zhanxiou Village – vignette in the anthology film To Each His Own Cinema, and Caught in the Web (2012).
Chen Kaige’s films are widely appreciated in academic circles as well. Critics mostly pay attention to his discussion of homosexuality and the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Farewell My Concubine. Still, some scientists see the film as a way to rethink the process of a person experiencing a traumatic experience. Lee notes that “although the characters themselves do not recognize the incidents as shocking, they need time to mourn and work through their experiences, when they return to normalcy” (1). Moreover, in adulthood, life with trauma becomes the norm for film characters.
The Story of Douzi’s Life and Struggle
The Farewell My Concubine movie tells the story of Douzi, whose mother gave him away to the theater troupe since he became too big to live in a brothel with her. One of the brightest scenes is when the mother cuts off Douzi’s little finger since he has six fingers instead of five on his left hand. And with six fingers, he cannot be accepted into the troupe. Possibly, the director invented the sixth’ finger as a metaphor – in this scene, the mother symbolically tears her son away.
There are many realistic scenes of violence; film consists almost entirely of such scenes. The group training scenes are vivid and impressive as well. When Master Guan punishes the boys with blows for insignificant mistakes, a viewer may think that he strives to make real opera masters out of the children living in the troupe. “Prostitutes and actors are equally despised by society,” says Master Guan, at the beginning of the film, to Douzi’s mother. Presumably, children may be subjected to such exhausting training so that in the future, they will be able to break the wall, which separates them from a more prosperous life.
Suicide Scenes in the Film
Several suicide scenes are introduced into the story as well. First-time Douzi faces suicide at a young age when one of the boys does not withstand the difficulties of life in a troupe and hangs himself on a rope for training. The news of suicide saves Douzi from the ongoing punishment for the outing into the city. Next time it happens in Douzi’s adulthood, when Ju Xian, a former prostitute, decides to commit suicide after Xiao Lou publicly abandons her in front of the Communists. The film ends when Douzi takes his life as if it was a part of the play. He pierces himself with a sword, just like the heroine of the Farewell My Concubine opera, whose role he played for many years.
His passing away is unexpected since there is the illusion that after Ju Xian’s death, Douzi’s relations with Xiao Lou will improve greatly. Nonetheless, psychological and physical injuries experienced during the life full of struggle and pain no longer allow him to see the reality as it is. Douzi is becoming more and more detached from the world, unable to survive all his experiences, and dies as he lived – on the border of a fictional and real world.
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Therefore, the picture is not a historical film in common sense. The film tries to “abstract its characters from that (historical) process, to represent them ahistorically or existentially and thus nearly disconnect the foreground from the background” (Cardullo 213). It allows the viewer to embrace the world of the main character, who seems to be looking at his life from aside. Hence, the storyline and the directorial technique described above make the picture emotionally saturated.
Thus, a critical assessment was given to the film Farewell My Concubine, directed by Chen Kaige. Parts of the plot were quoted to present the overall impression of the film. It should be concluded that this picture tells a story of struggle, and it has an open ending. Besides, the main idea of the film, woven into the life story of the protagonist, is undeniable. Its essence is that, even though we are witnessing life as a series of experiences of suffering and pain, it becomes only more valuable and beautiful. Therefore, from a dark plot, a very optimistic central idea of the film is suddenly born.
Cardullo, Robert James. Teaching Sound Film: A Reader. Sense Publishers, 2016.
Lee, Eunah. “Excess and Affect in Post-Traumatic Cinema: Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993).” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-9.